People frequently ask me, “Where did you go to college?” and some look as though I’ve just walloped them in the face with a flounder when I reply, “I didn’t go to college.” How can that be, I see them thinking, you’re a published author. Yeah. And in this era of nearly mandatory MFAs, I suppose I do seem like a bit of a freak.
I left home when I was sixteen, armed with a high school leaving diploma, a highly dysfunctional family, and a passion for books. While my friends were off at university I was working as a waitress, or cleaning people’s houses, or doing menial office work of one kind or another. Many of my friends were artists and musicians and actors and some of them, while doing laundry at my place, or eating the pasta dinners I provided, or drinking my wine, would tell me I had sold out, that by working in an office (gag!) I was betraying my art.
It stung, but because I came from a family where we lived in fear someone was going to show up and repossess the car or evict us from the house (Dad was a bit loose with money when he drank, which was always). Being able to pay my own bills and feed myself was important to me. Crucial, in fact. I found it very hard to write when I was hungry and cold and scared I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent. Early on, when I first left home and was living in a small town in Nova Scotia, I lived for a number of months on Tang, cream of wheat and sardines. I don’t recommend it. And I never want to do it again. I don’t find poverty romantic, and do not confuse it with living a simple, pared-down life. One is an aesthetic, even spiritual choice, the other is terrifying and humiliating.
But, regardless of what I did to earn a living (always legal), I took my art seriously. I read. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read to find out what I liked, and what I didn’t. I read to find out why I liked what I liked — how did the author DO that? I read to find out why this writer or that one failed to satisfy me — stereotypical characters, bad dialogue, predictable plot. The one thing I found, time and again, was that books which were merely clever, but had no compassion, left me cold. I was interested in writers who not only understood how to turn a pile of words into a sentence worth memorizing, but who also understood the human heart. I loved the cadence and rhythm of American Southern writers (Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers), of Irish writers (Frank O’Connor), of British writers (Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, John Galsworthy). I loved the passion of James Agee, the humanity of Gabrielle Roy, Morley Callaghan and Margaret Laurence, the grit of Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy, the sheer glory of James Baldwin and the imagination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I revered the bravery of Virginia Woolf and the mouth feel of work by Lawrence Durrell.
But no, I didn’t go to college. Certainly the wisdom these days seems to be that if you come out of one of the 854 (!) available degree-granting writing programs, you’re more likely to publish, and to get a job teaching at one of these very same programs, than if you don’t. Still, I’m doing okay, and frankly, I’ll be doing okay regardless of whether I ever publish again or not. Over the years I’ve been writing I’ve come to believe that although publishing is a lovely thing to do, for me the writing’s the thing. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “It’s much more important to write than to be written about.”
A recent article on Slate.com says America now has two distinct literary cultures – that of the writing program graduates, and that of the NYC publishing industry insiders. It asks, “Which one will last?”
Only two? Really? Huh. I wonder if there aren’t a number of writers out there, working away, word by word, sentence by sentence, far from the MFAs and the publishing industry bigwigs. A number of fine authors belonged to neither group — Jane Austen, William Blake, Ray Bradbury, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner (dropped out), F. Scott Fitzgerald (also dropped out), Robert Frost (another drop out), William Gibson, Ring Lardner, Jack London, Herman Melville, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, J.D. Salinger, Jose Saramago, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Alan Stilltoe, Leo Tolstoy (dropped out), Mark Twain, Leon Uris, Walt Whitman, Emile Zola.
There are probably more.
I never expected to make a living from writing and, therefore, I was in a way liberated to experiment, to follow my interests, to develop as a writer (albeit slowly) walking a highly individual path. I can’t say what sort of a writer I might have become had I gone to university or burrowed into the NYC publishing lair, of course, but I can say I’ve enjoyed the road I’ve taken and that I’ve produced some work of which I’m not entirely dissatisfied (that’s about the best a writer can hope for!). I’m not saying you shouldn’t attend college, only that if you aren’t able to or choose not to, it doesn’t mean you can’t educate yourself, and can’t become a fine writer. In fact, I sometimes wonder what new innovations, what new perspectives might be discovered if emerging writers were influenced only by the work of the great writers on their bookshelves, and the love of a great human story, rather than the seats of established power.